Anxiety, Motivation & Mindset, Practitioner, Reflective Practice, Uncategorized


September 1, 2021

Lately I have rediscovered my enjoyment of swimming. I’ve been challenging myself with open water swimming. This has been a growing edge for me, dealing with the constricting feeling of the wetsuits, getting used to weeds in my feet, large expanses of water, putting my face in murky, cold water.  Today, I  was ‘only’ in  the local open air swimming pool.  It was lovely, I was aware that, since swimming in open water, my stroke had actually improved.  This morning I felt faster and more powerful, I could see the positive difference that swimming longer distances had on my front crawl.

I can’t breathe!

However,  these pleasant thoughts were short-lived as after the first five lengths I became aware of a tight feeling in my chest and difficulty breathing. I was was experiencing a panic attack. Over the next 20 mins or so I then became aware of a battle of minds going on in my head as I attempted to deal with what felt like frightening, physical sensations.

My attempts to handle my panic involved – rationalisation – acknowledgement that was happening but reminding myself that it was nothing more than adrenaline, and that this would be temporary.  I paused swimming on several occasions, reminding myself that the sensation would pass, and instead concentrated on awareness of my surroundings, counting swimming hats, looking at the trees, anything that would distract me from my body.

My body is a resilient system

In fact in a fairly short period of time the actual panic feeling passed. I was then left managing the after effects of adrenaline flooding my system –  fearful thoughts that it would happen again, what if this happened in open water etc. I tried further cognitive challenges  included telling myself that I was feeding the panic attack by continuing to engage with it. This helped quite a bit. I actively practised slow, ‘unbothered’ swimming, not trying to swim, saying in an unbothered way to myself ‘so what’, ‘who cares’. Anxiety started to settle.

I reminded myself that my body is a resilient system, that it doesn’t need me to breathe – this is something I coach others and was a real important reality check.  All of these challenges to my distorted thinking helped. After each self challenge I managed another couple of lengths. In the end managed 25 lengths (but I was hoping for 50). 

“I noticed I wasn’t breathing, I was being breathed”

As I came home I reflected on my experience. My thoughts ranged from feeling a bit annoyed with myself for not accomplishing my 50 + lengths and the fact of letting a panic attack derail me. I was about to launch into a critical diatribe with my partner about how I should know better (bla bla bla) but I stopped. What came to mind instead was a realisation.

I’m being breathed!

And in that moment I remembered this was something I’d read by Byron Katie

“One day I noticed I wasn’t breathing, I was being breathed” –

(Byron Katie, 2002, p4 Loving What is).

And this is the essence of what I teach and what I practice. I had, in that moment, temporarily forgotten this but my wisdom fortunately reminded me. Somehow the idea of being breathed dropped in deeper than the rationalising I’d done earlier. I felt a deeper sense that I was okay, that I would be okay.

We don’t have to ‘do’ anything.

‘Being breathed’ is a physiological fact but is also as metaphor for life. In moments of struggle our bodies response is often to survive – to try and regain control. However, the fact that our bodies breathe – without us needing to do anything is a beautiful reminder that, in the majority of cases, [panic attacks included], doing less is actually more. If we let it, our body will find its way back to its equilibrium.

Getting out of our own way

So this little swimming story is also becomes a metaphor for life and the struggles and challenges we come up against. When we are challenged, it is natural to feel resistance and to interpret it as danger. However, as we grow into becoming ever more tuned into and consciously aware of our wisdom, we can realise that, most often, we need to get out of our own way.

For example I realise that if I don’t fight anxiety, I become open to the fact that anxiety is teaching me many lessons. Without the experience of anxiety I wouldn’t have the many insights I have gained into my human experience. There are very few situations where accepting what is and trusting our innate capacity to ride with the experiences would not be appropriate.

How are you getting in your own way?

So I wonder where you are getting in your own way – in life, work, your relationships? I wonder what opens up when you allow and trust your innate capacity to guide you to the next step. This is different from taking control. I encourage you to feel into that difference and see what space opens up for you.

I can’t wait to get back into the water and explore what being with ‘being breathed’ will open up for me!

I’d love to know your thoughts and reflections, do respond in the comments below or email me directly. I can’t wait to hear from you!

About the author 

Sheila Preston

I am Dr Sheila Preston, a transformative practitioner with over 23 years’ experience in education, community settings. I have trained and supported hundreds of socially engaged artists and practitioners. Now I help brilliantly courageous practitioners who are working with communities who are experiencing difficulties in their lives and/or who work in challenging settings* These practitioners are committed to working in a heart-centred, relational way with vulnerable or hard to reach communities. I help these amazing practitioners get out of survival mode and THRIVE so they can lean into their heart-centred practice, and lead social change without burning out! I am committed to finding affordable solutions for on-going coaching or support for practitioners which is why I developed the Thriving Facilitators Membership. *settings such as, prison and probation, schools and universities, pupil referral, day centres, SEN settings, mental health, health care, social services, neighbourhoods.

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